ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
ʼʼ

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Overcooked, Overpriced and overspiced

Since it opened a few months ago I have enjoyed drinking at the Craft Beer Company - and working just down the road from it makes it very convenient indeed.

But I hadn't, until yesterday, visited the sister pub - which actually came first, and by a couple of years at that.

Quite why I never made it to the Cask Pub and Kitchen until now is a bit of a mystery. In Pimlico, not far from Victoria station, it's not exactly remote. I guess it was just one of those 'keep meaning to do sometime' things that just never seemed to happen - like writing my screenplay about the time-travelling bicycle or finishing that song I started in 1999. 

It's famous not only for a big range of ales but also it's burger-oriented food menu, so it should have been an early stop on my quest to find the finest burger in London - if I'd actually stuck to that quest with any serious intent.
 


The time is now


Anyway, yesterday I finally made it. And maybe my delay in going there was borne out of some kind of sixth sense.


I won't beat around the bush: The beer choice is about half that of the craft beer company, and the burgers are disappointing and, well, just a bit weird.


10 handpumps is good, and the four ales I tried were all in near-flawless condition - but then they have beers from the same brewers at the Craft (only about 20 of them) and that's more convenient to get to. The only trump card the Cask can realistically play is the Ace of Burgers, and they fail horribly.


£11-12 can get you a good burger in London these days. In the Cask it gets you a thick, half-pounder, but one so horribly overcooked there's not a trace of pink (and nobody asks you how you'd like it cooked - a deeply worrying sign in itself).


Looks better than it tastes...
The meat should do the talking, but the Cask's patties are so over-seasoned (I detected a lot of pepper and, bizarrely, cumin) that it could easily have been fashioned from a portion of chilli.


They actually do a chilli burger, but this was meant to be Stilton and bacon, both of which came in barely perceptable quantities and were outmuscled by the burger - surely a world's first.

(It certainly wasn't like Buster's Burger Van in mid-Naughties Ipswich, where the Stilton burger memorably came with a thick wedge, freshly cut from the truckle!)

It was hard to ascertain the quality of the meat, but let's just say that if it were Aberdeen Angus hung for six weeks, you'd think they wouldn't be prone to disguising it thus!


Strangely the bun, so often the weak link in the, err, burger chain, was actually pretty good - a toasted sesame brioche - and the chunky chips were reasonable, though few in number.

The meal is completed with a tiny pot of sweet barbecue sauce, some extremely salty, stale-tasting coleslaw that completely misses the point, and a couple of perfectly acceptable onion rings.



Food is available until 9:30 PM which is still quite good by pub standards in this country, but I really wouldn't recommend eating here.

They do Coan's Black Country pork scratchings which are among the tastiest, so you'd be better off snacking on these while you drink, and then moving on elsewhere to eat.

The beers change constantly, and they tend to focus on a couple of breweries at any given time. Last night there were several beers from Mallinsons (West Yorks) and Dark Star (West Sussex).


The pick of the bunch was Mallinson's Kiwi Classic, a light bitter with floral hop character. The Acorn Gorlovka Imperial Russian Stout (6%) was hard work but rewarding and had an uncompromising roastiness about it.


I was hoping to try Dark Star's new Black Coffee Pilsner, but it was just running out as we arrived. Ho hum.


Then again, I was hoping to try a really good burger too...




Where to find it...
Cask Pub & Kitchen
6 Charlwood Street,
Pimlico,
SW1V 6EE (map)
********* 
(The stars are mostly for the beer!)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Pancake Days and Mondays never get me down


It struck me this week, while cooking the pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, that it’s the one day of the year when one's dessert usually takes up the greater portion of the meal as a whole.

This year, we only ate a very light supper of beans on toast, so as to leave plenty of room for a succession of freshly cooked pancakes. And things were much the better for that, I can tell you.

Tosser.
My blood sugar reading the following morn might have been higher than the doctor would have liked, but it was worth it.

I shan’t bother with a pancake recipe because it’s so easy. Eggs. Flour. Milk. Sugar. Sans lumps. In quantities such that the mixture takes about half a second to drip off a spoon.

And always fry them in good quality salted butter. And eat them immediately. Easy.


Insider Secrets from the world of Batter

I do have one little tip to share though: Add some maple syrup to the batter mix as well as putting it on your pancakes. You won’t regret it.

Oh, and take a risk-averse approach to the art of tossing. You might look cool if you manage too, err, pull it off, but it's better to use a spatula and ensure that the flipped fucker ends up back in the pan where it bastard well belongs.

It's also worth varying the quantity of batter and therefore the thickness of the pancake - thick Scotch style and wafer-thin French style are both good, as are all the varying degrees of girth 'that lie betwixt the twain'.

We had our pancakes with chocolate, banana, maple syrup (obviously), whipped cream and chopped nuts, which is possibly a tad on the hyper-indulgent side, and again not appealing to my GP, but they tasted awesome.

And given that I’ve joined my good lady wife in giving up chocolate for Lent this year, I feel my system deserved a fitting Mardi Gras blow-out.

I’ll give you one more seasonal tip: Savoury crepes are a doddle to make – just omit the sugar and syrup, and add some fresh Parmesan to the batter mix. Serve filled with chilli con carne. Or Boston Baked Beans. Or just some pancetta fried with onion, garlic and tomato. You can’t go wrong.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A tale of two curries (and a side dish)

Over the last year or so I’ve been perfecting some curry recipes, but haven't written much about them since my Murgh Keema Masala well over a year ago - actually the very first recipe I published on this blog

The ability to cook a really good curry will elevate you above the plebs – unfortunately all too many homemade curries are either bland and watery or just one-dimensionally hot and lacking in finesse.

Fortunately yours don’t have to be like this.

In the privacy of your own kitchen it can be hard to come up with something exactly like a curry you'd eat in a restaurant (largely due to the lack of proper tandoor ovens and other specialised equipment in most homes), but you can make a curry at home that's both excellent in it's own right and also significantly healthier than the old tandoori restaurant standards - which is a particular concern of mine at the moment, obviously.

Enjoy.

Chicken Tikka Bhuna


For best results, preparation the day before is required. The recipe works equally well with king prawns.

Ingredients - serves four


Chicken breast pieces, skinless, bitesize, about 1½ lbs
Onions, 2 large or 3 small, quartered
Red chillies, 2-3, chopped – more if you like it hot
Green peppers, 2, sliced into rings  
Tomatoes, 4-5, quartered
Garlic, several cloves, finely chopped
Red tandoori powder, quite a lot
Cumin
Paprika
Ginger, ground
Natural yoghurt or light sour cream, as much as is needed
Oil
Water (if required)
Fresh coriander, coarsely chopped (optional)

Method:

The key to this recipe is getting a good, authentic tandoori powder (a specialist shop, Asian market stall or the ‘ethnic foods’ section of a big supermarket will have this).

Make your tandoori marinade by mixing the tandoori powder with yoghurt (about 50/50) to create a thick paste, and thoroughly coat your chicken pieces. Leave in the fridge overnight if possible.

Once the chicken has marinated overnight, put the pieces on a baking tray and cook in the oven at about 200 for 20-25 minutes, until the edges just start to char.

Meanwhile, take a big pan with a lid and fry the garlic and chilli in a little oil, along with another generous pinch of the tandoori spice mix and the cumin, paprika and ginger.

Looking good...
After a couple of minutes add the onion, and then the peppers and tomatoes, before finally transferring the cooked chicken to the pan, along with any excess spicy yoghurt mix.

Turn the heat down, whack the lid on, and cook for at least an hour. A Bhuna should be quite a thick and dryish curry, so you shouldn’t need a lot of extra liquid, beyond what emerges naturally from the tomatoes and peppers, but add a little water if it’s so dry that it might burn, even on a low.

While the flavours improve with slow cooking, it’s important not to overdo it – the tomatoes should maintain their shape, and the peppers should be slightly crunchy.

A nice flourish with this and many curries is to chuck in some fresh coriander shortly before serving.

This type of curry is best served with a naan bread and a vegetable side dish (eg a garlic saag bhaji – see below).


Mixed vegetable Balti


This is a main-dish vegetarian curry - you can vary the exact vegetables used fairly extensively
 
Ingredients - serves four:
Carrots, 3-4, thickly sliced
Tasting good!
Courgette, 1 big or 2 small, sliced Aubergine, 1 full-size or 2 or more baby, diced
Onions, 2 large or 3 small, quartered
Tomatoes, 4-5, quartered
Green pepper, 1, sliced into rings
Chillis, chopped, as much as you feel like
Garlic, a few cloves, finely chopped or mushed
Fresh coriander, several leaves, coarsely chopped
Curry leaves, a few
Ground Cumin
Ginger, chopped fresh or ground.
Cayenne pepper
Turmeric
Black pepper
Cardamom pods
Lemon juice
Natural yoghurt
Oil
Water
Flour to thicken (if required)

Method:

Heat the oil in a big, lidded pan, and fry the garlic, ginger and chilli, adding the onion and dried spices after a couple of minutes. These spices are just a guide – you can achieve different flavours with other combinations.

Keep the heat on high and add all your vegetables, with a little water and lemon juice if it’s too dry. Ensure everything is mixed up and your spices are nicely coating everything.

After a few minutes, turn the heat down to somewhere in the middle and stick the lid on. Leave to cook for about an hour, stirring occasionally.

You’ll find the liquid level increases somewhat, so you might need to add a little flour to thicken things up. Stir in plenty of natural yoghurt and cook on high again for five minutes or so before serving.

Vegetable curries are very flexible and other ingredients could include chunks of cauliflower or (parboiled) potato.

Rice, puris, mango chutney and a cold beer are all worthy accompaniments and again, chuck in some fresh, tasty coriander before serving.

 

Garlic Saag Bhaji

 
A flavoursome side dish that will compliment most curries

Ingredients:

Spinach leaves (you’ll need a surprisingly large amount)
Onion, a little, finely chopped
Garlic, plenty, sliced thinly as opposed to chopped
Asafoetida, a generous pinch
Black Onion seeds, a generous pinch
Salted butter or ghee

Method:

Melt the butter in a large frying pan, and fry the onion on high for a couple of minutes, before adding the garlic, asafoetida and black onion seeds.

Continue to fry the onion and spices and ensure the surface of the pan is coated with flavoursome goodness, then start adding your spinach leaves.

You should have enough spinach to fill the pan and still have some left over – don’t worry, it will reduce exponentially in volume.

Keep the spinach moving so that the onion and garlic are all mixed in, and keep going until you’ve added all the leaves.

Within a couple of minutes it will be reduced to a think clump of green, and when you can no longer make out the shapes of individual leaves, it’s ready to serve!

This dish can be kept in the pan and reheated later, or indeed microwaved.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Trying to stop my heart breaking - a Valentine's tale

Having largely avoided going to the doctors for many years, events all seem to have caught up with me in recent weeks, and the conclusions drawn from a spate of visits to various clinical facilities for myriad assessments and blood tests has concluded that I suffer from high blood pressure and Type II diabetes. (In addition to the various gouty, asthmatic, arrythmic ailments that befouled me.)

Great.

Diabetes and high blood pressure are strange beasts, in that you don't necessarily 'suffer' from them (I have no discernable symptoms) but having them can make it a whole lot more likely one will suffer from things that are properly hurty - blindness, stroke, heart attack, heart failure etc.

(You'll have realised by now that this seasonal blogpipe has relatively little to do with love, but then St Valentine himself suffered from cardio-vascular problems and excess glucose, so it's topical. OK, maybe he didn't. I'm ill. Indulge me.)



Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pennywise, Poundcake

‘Double Dip!’, ‘Credit Crunch!’, ‘Trough-snout Bankers!’ Whichever buzzwords you choose to bandy around, it can’t be denied that tough times are here to last – for most of us at least.

This week Nik Kershaw is auctioning both his lungs, while the next sequel to ‘Dude, where’s my car’ doesn’t have the budget to feature a car.

The French government has rocked the state-owned cutlery-manufacture business by ruling that all new forks will be made with only two prongs, and the Westboro Baptist Church is having to offer gay marriage ceremonies just to pay the bills!

So, to help people through these penurious times I’ve put together a list of five simple ways to save the pennies but still eat and drink like royalty.

You know the old saying – Breakfast like a King, Lunch like a King, and dine like a King!